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German Culture on the Skids:
How World War I Changed German Culture in America

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 1

Historical Review 2.3   
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I shall not go back to debate the causes of the war. The intolerable wrongs done and planned against us by the sinister masters of Germany have long since become too grossly obvious and odious to every true American to need to be rehearsed.                              - Woodrow Wilson to Congress, 1917

          The First World War had many effects on the world, some more dramatic than others. Mass casualties, flu epidemics, and the use of modern technology are all well known aspects of this war. It was also the first to bring widespread fear and paranoia to the American public. The fear of socialism, anarchy, and communism fueled government-sponsored propaganda that scared the American people into a patriotic furor. This rabid pro-Americanism took its toll on the German-American population and culture. Germany was the enemy, as was anything German. Citizens feared that their German neighbors might be spies or subversives. At the beginning of the war, before American involvement, German-Americans did not hide their support for their homeland. Through rallies and German-themed clubs, German-Americans proudly cheered on their homeland. However, this activity only made them more suspect as American intervention in the war became inevitable. Once the United States entered the war, it put the German-American population in a tricky situation; should their loyalties lie with their homeland, or the new land? Some German organizations in America quickly proclaimed their American loyalty, others did not. Soon, any sign of pro-German activity became suspect. Americans joined together and formed organizations, such as the American Protective League, to root out traitors and rally for American loyalty. German place names were changed, and schools across the country ceased to offer German-language classes. German culture was systematically removed from the United States. These actions were felt especially hard in the Midwest, where the vast majority of German-Americans lived. Chicago, the most German city in America at the time of the First World War, hosted a plethora of German-language newspapers and clubs. Because of this, Chicago, and other parts of Illinois, became a hotbed of anti-German sentiment. Germaniphobia went beyond place name changes and took on a violent and sinister tone when Robert Prager, a German immigrant who was thought to be disloyal, was hanged by a mob in Collinsville, Illinois. The state of Illinois provides a small-scale setting to witness how the war led to the downfall of German culture in America.

I hope that I need give no further proofs and assurances than I have already given throughout nearly three years of anxious patience that I am the friend of peace, and mean to preserve it for America so long as I am able
                                                                    . - Woodrow Wilson to Congress, 1917

          When the war broke out in 1914, German-Americans valiantly cheered their homeland. America was not yet involved in the war, so the German-Americans did not feel they had to hide their German patriotism. The fear and suspicion of German-Americans had not begun to spread. Chicago's German newspapers ran articles supporting the homeland, and were confident that the Germans would win easily. Some German and Austrian immigrants reported to their respective consulates to volunteer for the army. German-Americans formed pro-German organizations and held rallies to show their support. The German-American Alliance was one of these organizations. They sponsored a rally at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre in August of 1916, which drew over 10,000 people.(1) They also held a Bismarck celebration to support Germany in the war. German-American pacifists formed the Friends of Peace in 1915, and held a national meeting in Chicago. Eleven of the fifteen executives of this group were German-born, which led to their label as pro-German, even though they were against the war. The Teutonic Sons of America, another pro-German group, formed soon after, and had over two million members by September of 1915.(2) This outspoken group often made headlines in major newspapers because of their support for Germany. "Teutonic Sons Attack Wilson's Administration,"(3) and "Teutonic Sons Honor Riley,"(4) both headlines from the Chicago Tribune, illustrate the presence this group had in Chicago. As American involvement in the war neared, a group of prominent German-Americans from Chicago traveled to Washington, D.C. in hopes to deter Wilson from entering the war.(5) Their efforts were in vain, but further illustrate the unwavering support for the homeland that many Germans retained during that time. However, not all German-Americans were openly supportive of Germany, some vowed American loyalty immediately. A lot of the German-Americans in the country had been in America for a long time, and thought of themselves as Americans, not German-Americans. Many of Chicago's German-Jews of the Sinai Temple publicly declared American support, as did the German Methodist ministers, and Chicago's Lutherans. Despite the claims of Illinois' German-Jews, Methodists, and Lutherans(6), it was clear that there was overwhelming support for the homeland among the state's German-American population. This support would later lead to intense suspicion, violence, and ultimately the end of German culture in Illinois.

America has been the great background of the European War. Though far removed from the trenches with the play of artillery and the heroic charges, this country has been the scene of an equally dramatic, though silent struggle-a battle not visible to the eye. It has been a conflict of wits, of statesman pitted against statesman, of secret agent striving to outdo his opponent of a belligerent nation; for in America, agents of Germany have been striving for a two-fold aim. They have sought to enmesh the United States in an international conspiracy and to use this country as the means of a rear attack on the Entente Allies.
                           - Excerpt from John Price's The German Spy in America, 1917

          Once the United States entered the war, a propaganda campaign was initiated by the government to rally support for the war and increase patriotism in the country. Germany became an official enemy of the United States, as did any person who supported Germany. President Wilson oversaw the creation of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which distributed pamphlets, posters, and motion pictures, promoting America and demonizing Germans. One CPI pamphlet reported that "The German-American National Alliance had long endeavored to weld persons of German descent in the United States into a compact body, to be used when desirable, in the interests of Germany."(7) This asserted that all people of German ancestry were loyal to Germany, not America. This assertion was untrue and led to suspicion of all German-Americans. The pamphlet went on to state that "The hand of the German Government was extended to America to influence members of Congress through German-American voters and their sympathizers."(8) Again, all German-Americans were accused of being disloyal. The propaganda was incredibly effective and scared the American public into a patriotic frenzy. Public figures, such as former President Theodore Roosevelt, toured the country giving pro-American speeches. He and William Howard Taft both gave speeches in Springfield, Illinois on the importance of American intervention in the war and the need for total support from all citizens. In May of 1917, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill creating the State Council of Defense (SDC) to regulate war activities in the state. In addition to managing the state's food production, conservation, and Liberty Bond sales, the SCD also directed the state's propaganda campaign. The SCD oversaw the distribution of over 200,000 pieces of patriotic literature in Illinois.(9)

          The CPI and the SCD were helped by the efforts of zealous citizens who joined the American Protective League (APL) to help spread, and sometimes demand, patriotism. The city of Chicago had more than 13,000 APL members.(10) The passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 made it legal to arrest and charge anyone who spoke out against the United States. In Illinois, the APL was responsible for conducting over seventy-five percent of the wartime investigations for espionage.(11) The APL was a very invasive group who used intimidation and other scare-tactics to threaten the American public. They held "slacker raids," where they demanded to see the draft cards of men to verify they were not dodging
the draft. The CPI, SCD, and APL all worked together to promote the war effort in America, using force if necessary. The fears of Americans were not wholly unsubstantiated; the sinking of the Lusitania by the Germans and the capture of a small number of German spies were real events, but were used to exaggerate the actual number of subversives in the country. By sensationalizing the possibility of disloyal German-Americans, these groups were successful in advancing American patriotism which initiated the decline of German-American culture in Illinois and throughout the country by the removal of German cultural icons, landmarks, and names.

This is a nation - not a polyglot boarding house. There is not room in the country for any 50-50 American, nor can there be but one loyalty - to the Stars and Stripes.
                                - Theodore Roosevelt, Des Moines, Iowa, May 27th, 1918

          The fear of espionage and disloyalty led to a campaign to Americanize German immigrants and anything German in the country. German place names were changed, German language classes were taken out of school curriculum, German organizations became more pro-American, and even some Germans Americanized their names. In Chicago, Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Coblenz, and Rhine streets were all changed to American names.(12) The Bismarck Hotel was renamed the Hotel Randolph, the Hotel Kaiserhof was changed to the Hotel Atlantic, and German Hospital was renamed Grant Hospital.(13) The Bismarck Beer Gardens, on the corner of Grace and Halsted Streets in Chicago, was renamed Marigold Gardens in 1915. German-American clubs and organizations followed suit; the Germania Club became the Lincoln Club and the Kaiser Friedrich Mutual Aid Society became the George Washington Benevolent Aid Society. A public monument that honored Johann von Goethe, a prominent German artist and scientist, was put into storage during the war.

          German churches also felt pressure to Americanize. Church services that were conducted in German switched to English. At St. Clement's Church, the sisters were required to report and register alien members.(14) German churches participated in Liberty Bond drives and swore their allegiance to America, but lost some their culture in the process. Americanization and the fear of Germans cost some people in Illinois their jobs. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's conductor, Frederick A. Stock, was rumored to be unpatriotic and was forced to step down to pursue the naturalization process for citizenship.(15) The choral director of the Illinois Bicentennial Pageant was forced to quit because of his German origins, and the Chicago Athletic Club fired its German-born employees. German cultural identity never made a recovery from this systematic Americanization.

I say plainly that every American who takes part in the action of a mob or gives it any sort of countenance is no true son of this great Democracy, but its betrayer and does more to discredit her by that single disloyalty to her standards of right than the words of her statesmen or the sacrifices of her heroic boys in the trenches can do to make suffering peoples believe her to be their savior.
                                                   - Woodrow Wilson to a news conference, 1918

          The anti-German furor and the fear of espionage eventually erupted into instances of harassment and violence. Illinois was home to a number of violent acts against Germans and Italians, as were other states in the country. Labor unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, were often hotbeds of Socialism and came under scrutiny during World War I. The unions were thought to contain German spies, and that the strikes were an attempt made by the German government to control the American economy. In one of the CPI's pamphlets, it was reported that "The strike was a weapon which both the German and Austrian ambassadors intended to use with destructive effect on American industry."(16) The suspicion of spies in American unions brought many investigations and raids to the members, especially for the IWW. The secretary of the Rockford, Illinois branch of the IWW was arrested with over 100 members for participating in a march opposing the draft. In Freeport, Illinois, 117 men, including 62 aliens, were sentenced to a year of hard labor for draft evasion.(17) The IWW offices in Chicago, Rockport, and other cities were raided in September of 1917. The raids led to the indictment of 116 men for thousands of crimes, mostly strikes, boycotts, and sabotage. The offices of the German newspapers, Arbeiterzeitung, Sozial Demokraten, and the Sonne were raided by government officials, but results were not incriminating(18). In Staunton, Illinois, the APL tarred and feathered an Italian immigrant who belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and a lawyer who defended IWW members.

          Not all of the acts of violence were reserved for IWW members; German-Americans throughout the country faced harassment from their peers, attacks from the APL, and instances of mob violence. German Methodists in Illinois faced the fear of having yellow stripes painted on their doors if they didn't purchase Liberty Bonds. In Havana, Illinois, a group of fifteen armed men entered the home of Edward Speckman, a German-American, accused him of making remarks that were unpatriotic to America, and demanded his loyalty(19). Four men, including a Polish Catholic priest, were tarred and feathered in Christopher, Illinois.(20) This type of abuse happened throughout the country, but Illinois stands out due to one particularly heinous act of paranoia-induced violence involving a man named Prager and an angry mob of patriotic Americans.

          Robert Prager immigrated to the United States in hopes of finding better economic opportunities than he had in Germany. He worked as a baker in St. Louis, and in 1918, tried to join a union in the Collinsville area. He was denied entrance to the union, probably because he was German and had socialist leanings. His denial turned ugly, and he was called a liar and a spy by the union president. Being German and called a spy was serious allegation in World War I America, and Robert Prager knew it. He posted handbills throughout the town swearing his loyalty and allegiance to the United States. He had registered for the draft while in St. Louis and even tried to join the navy, but was denied due to a medical condition.(21) Unfortunately, the citizens of Collinsville did not know this, and were convinced that Prager was a German spy. During the morning of April 14, a group of angry men left a local saloon, marched to Robert Prager's apartment, abducted him, and forced him to march down Main Street draped in an American flag. The police interfered and placed Prager in jail for his own safety. The mob, consisting of over 300 people, reformed in front of the jail, demanding that Prager be released. When the police refused to release him, the mob forced their way into the jail, took Prager out of the basement where he was hiding, and forced him to march out of town. Prager continued to deny allegations that he was a spy and attempted to assert his loyalty, but he could say nothing to appease the crowd. Some wanted to tar and feather him; others had something else in mind. A fifteen-year-old boy was sent for tar and feathers, but returned with a rope.(22) Prager was given time to write his mother a letter, and was then hanged from a tree. His arms were left unbound and he was able to support himself, so he was lowered, bound, and hanged again. This time he didn't wiggle free.

Dear Parents- I must this day, the 5th of April, die. Please pray for me, my dear parents.
       - Robert Prager in a letter written to his parents before he was hanged, 1918

          Twelve men were arrested for the murder, including the leader of the mob, Joseph Riegel. The trial made national headlines that induced a media frenzy. Riegel recanted an earlier confession, and the men received a verdict of not guilty. The hanging of Robert Prager serves as an example of what fear can do to a nation. It was important for the United States and our allies to win the war, but was it necessary to use propaganda, the American Protective League, and other organizations to scare the country into conformity? These actions taken by the government, and by individual citizens, created a national hysteria, which led to the harassment of innocent German-Americans and the murder of Robert Prager. Loyal German-Americans were punished for the actions of a few spies and their ancestral homeland. German culture came to a screeching halt during this time, and German-Americans were afraid to show any pride for their ancestry. The number of people in Illinois who claimed German heritage declined from 191,000 in 1914 to 112,000 in 1920. During WWI, the Americanization process destroyed what German culture that did exist in place names, landmarks, clubs, and restaurants. A German subculture has not been able to resurrect itself in America, leaving those with German ancestry at a loss for signs of their German-American cultural identity in the United States.

By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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